Jörg Haider; Politician Made Far-Right Party A Force in Austria

Jörg Haider targeted immigration and the European Union, and was often seen as sympathetic to the country's Nazi past.
Jörg Haider targeted immigration and the European Union, and was often seen as sympathetic to the country's Nazi past. (Gert Eggenberger - AP)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jörg Haider, a divisive Austrian political figure who rose to prominence as the leader of a far-right movement that was often seen as sympathetic to the country's shadowy Nazi past, died Oct. 11 in a car accident near the southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt. He was 58.

Mr. Haider was passing another car when his Volkswagen Phaeton left the road, struck a pillar and overturned. He died on the way to a hospital. There was no immediate suspicion of foul play.

The charismatic Mr. Haider single-handedly made the ultra-conservative Austrian Freedom Party a force in national politics with his fiery rhetoric against immigrants, the European Union and the euro, the EU's continent-wide currency. He led the most successful far-right party in Europe, far outpacing the political success of France's National Front.

Handsome, photogenic and perpetually tanned, Mr. Haider was known to his supporters as the "Alpine Rambo," partly for his prowess as a mountain climber and skier and partly for his confrontational style.

Mr. Haider's parents had been members of the Nazi party, and he sometimes praised aging Third Reich soldiers at their reunions. But he also mixed easily with a younger generation in nightly visits to discos to recruit new party members.

His rallies attracted throngs of young people who responded to Mr. Haider's pleas to banish immigrants and to challenge Austria's two long-reigning parties, the Social Democrats and the more conservative People's Party.

"People are fed up with the old parties that never live up to their promises," he said in his campaigns. "They want action on everyday problems, whether it is job security, housing or uncontrolled immigration."

At times, Mr. Haider's followers would start singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," an anthem from the musical "Cabaret" that symbolized the Nazi takeover of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

Mr. Haider was first elected to the Austrian parliament in 1979, when he was only 29. In 1999, his Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in national elections, making it the second-largest party in Austria's governing coalition. But an international backlash and mass protests in Vienna prompted Mr. Haider to resign his position as party leader within months.

He retreated to his stronghold in the southern region of Carinthia, where he was the longtime governor, and had occasional cameos on the international stage, including several visits to Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi.

In 2005, as his former party splintered into factions, Mr. Haider formed the Alliance for the Future of Austria and appeared to moderate his views.

Two weeks ago, his party won 11 percent of the national vote, and Mr. Haider was at the center of the Austrian political stage once more. His old Freedom Party collected 18 percent of the vote, giving the far right almost a third of the seats in parliament.

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